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Facing Rising Heat, Shrinking Vegetation, Many In Hermosillo Reimagine A Greener City

On a chilly Sunday morning in an unusually warm November, a few dozen volunteers gathered on a rocky hillside on the northern end of Hermosillo. Picks and shovels in hand, they carved a winding trail through the desert — a green belt, or cinturón verde, on the edge of town.

“The green belt is a sustainable urban mobility project” said Sofia Vargas, a leader with the collective Caminantes del Desierto, which spearheaded the Cinturón Verde "Atardeceres" project — a six-mile hiking and biking trail that also serves to halt development and protect wildlands beyond the existing city limits in this small stretch of the Sierra del Espinazo Prieto mountain range on the northern outskirts of Hermosillo.

“So, the goal is that this remains a conservation area,” Vargas said. “And at the same time, a natural recreation area for the community. A place where we can go to be in contact with the natural environment, our desert, and that we can do activities like hiking.”

The project is part of a growing green movement in the city. Dozens of conservation-focused collectives have formed in recent years — promoting waste reduction and recycling, planting native trees and revitalizing neighborhood parks. In turn, projects like the green belt help spur greater interest and involvement in conservation by providing spaces for people to experience and enjoy nature, Vargas said.

“This sustainability impulse definitely exists, and we definitely need to extend it,” she said. “We want this to be a project that’s seen as something by and for everyone.”

But to see the kind of widespread change Hermosillo really needs, she added, local, state and federal government leaders also need to get involved.

In the case of the green belt project, her collective has worked with city officials like Hermosillo’s head of city planning, Guadalupe Peñúñuri Soto to formalize the project and use city zoning to protect it.

Building A Foundation

Peñúñuri said attitudes toward sustainability have changed dramatically in Hermosillo in recent years.

“It’s really evident how much it’s changing in the city,” she said. “For example, I have thousands of complaints about people cutting down trees now. It used to be seen as normal, the price of progress. Not anymore. People really think twice before they do something that harms nature.”

And it makes sense that environmental conservation is gaining traction in a city where residents so starkly see — and feel — the effects of shrinking vegetation and rising temperatures, she said.

“Hermosillo, like a lot of cities in Mexico, has the problem that it’s grown exponentially in size in a way that it hasn’t grown in population,” she said. “And that’s brought us a lot of problems.”

For decades now, Hermosillo has grown outward, eating up land with poorly planned developments. That sprawl has led to reliance on cars, the loss of natural habitats and wildlife and a languishing city center.

Peñúñuri said she’s worked for years to create a sustainable development plan, change building standards and invest in green infrastructure, like bike lanes, in Hermosillo. But, the city has limited resources.

“That’s why we’re looking for these pilot projects like the green belt,” she said.

With the collective doing the labor, the city rezoned that area to prevent further development into the mountainside. And Peñúñuri hopes it will pave the way for other similar collaborations with citizen groups.

The city has also turned to outside organizations and grants for help, recently receiving funds to reforest and create a bio-cultural park on the city’s iconic Cerro La Campana hill, used by Hermosillenses the way Phoeniceans use Camelback Mountain and Tucsonans use Tumamoc Hill.

Peñúñuri believes the work she’s doing is building a foundation to help Hermosillo become more environmentally friendly in the long term. But she admits that right now, it doesn’t look, or function, like a green city.

“I get it. If you see the city you don’t see a green or forested city,” she said. “But we believe that everything has to start with planning, strategy, because the same problems of having such a sprawling city make it hard to even notice the work we are doing.”

That has left many conservation groups frustrated with what they see as a lack of commitment to environmental sustainability on the part of state and local leaders.

Biological Corridor

Earlier this year, demonstrators blared car horns during a COVID-safe protest against the city’s planned sale of El Carcamo — a large sports complex with baseball and soccer fields, basketball courts and a walking path.

Thousands of neighbors, youth sports teams and environmental groups put up intense opposition to the mayor’s plan to allow the land to be converted into a convention center parking lot. Ultimately, protesters were successful in halting the sale.

“In a nutshell, this city is ugly,” said Joel Montoya, who helped lead protests. “We’re a group of citizens concerned with promoting changes in the city. Imagine something different for our city.”

He belongs to a group of “academics, artists, nature lovers and experts in their fields” working to turn El Carcamo and the surrounding area into a huge park - part of their vision for a biological corridor along what used to be the course of the Rio Sonora, starting with what’s left of the La Sauceda wetlands.

Hummingbirds flit through palo verdes, and herons and ducks lounge in the shady shallows of the small oasis hemmed by roads and concrete.

“It’s a tremendous natural beauty,” said architect Blanca Olivia Cota, looking out over the serene waters. “You would never imagine you would find something like this in Hermosillo.”

Cota has drawn up plans for this part of the biological corridor: an expansive urban park that would extend and protect the wetlands; create a botanical garden out of a long-abandoned theme park nearby; beautify El Carcamo and add hiking and biking paths in the neighboring hills.

It’s an ambitious project.

“It’s really easy. It seems complicated, but it's not,” she said. “But of course, it’s not going to happen overnight.”

It’s a matter of will, work and a bit of funding, she said. Much of the infrastructure is already there to start building the park, and from there patchwork of green spaces across the city.

The project, has tremendous community support, Montoya said, in part because these greening efforts aren’t just about planting trees and protecting wildlife.

“It’s not just green. It’s not just trees,” he said. “We’re also looking at everything that comes with that. Places for sports and recreation, culture and entertainment - all things that our city, unfortunately, desperately needs.”

The biological corridor and other greening projects, he said, are about making Hermosillo a better place to live, with shaded sidewalks, attractive parks, and community spaces filled with greenery where families can gather and artists can perform.

“Anyone who has ever traveled and lived the experience of another city, they’d like to see theirs as beautiful as others,” Montoya said.

He and others believe that’s not only possible, but necessary for the future livability of Hermosillo.

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Kendal Blust was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2018 to 2023.